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Dean's Foreign Policy: I Am No George Bush

In his first major foreign policy speech, Howard Dean revealed why he is the best Democratic alternative to Bush.
 
 
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Howard Dean's first major speech on foreign policy on Monday in Los Angeles was delivered amid the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein's capture, and a more symbolic twinning of events could scarcely be imagined. The Dean speech was quietly spun as his attempt to re-position himself toward the center, while his major Democratic opponents were scurrying even further to the right in their attempt to identify with the event's popular appeal, denouncing Dean along the way.

But Dean's speech, along with his signature opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, revealed him as the best Democratic alternative to Bush, while sustaining his bona fide s as a progressive.

The flag-waving of Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry after Saddam's surrender is a lesson in myopia. The armed resistance to U.S. occupation will continue, and is even likely to diminish. But it is not as daunting a prospect as the longer-term prospects for Iraq, which remains on track to become a state with intense communal rivalries dominated by anti-American Shi'ite clerics. And it does not change the fact that there were always alternatives to invasion.

The war was based on false premises, and it has been costly in innumerable ways, not least in managing the central challenge of Islamic militancy. None of this changed with Saddam's capture. Dean's position on Iraq has been right from the start, and is likely to be seen as such months or years down the road.

The Dean speech was not meant to be an answer to the extraordinary events of the weekend, but inevitably Iraq remained paramount. Much of the media coverage of his speech has focused on his willingness to use military force -- he emphasizes his support for U.S. military action in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as action in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan -- in contrast to his opposition to the current Iraq imbroglio.

But such a measure of a candidate's foreign policy position is superficial. No one in the race is a pacifist, and no one would disagree with Dean's three standards of military action (to respond to a direct or imminent attack on the U.S., or to prevent genocide), which he enumerated in pre-speech interviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

In his speech, he emphasized three policy positions that are bound to become the pillars of his own foreign-policy agenda during the campaign. First, the cardinal threat to American security is terrorism, and that Bush has done far too little to protect Americans and much of it, clumsily. Among such threats, Dean pointed to weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists several times in the course of his speech. The second critique points the damage to the alliances and multilateral cooperation due to Bush administration's emphasis on unilateralism. Third is addressing social and economic calamities -- HIV/AIDS and global poverty -- that also give rise to the conditions of desperation and political violence.

Dean said:

"Empowered by the American people, I will work to restore:

The legitimacy that comes from the rule of law;

The credibility that comes from telling the truth;

The knowledge that comes from first-rate intelligence, undiluted by ideology;

The strength that comes from robust alliances and vigorous diplomacy;

And, of course, I will call on the most powerful armed forces the world has ever known to ensure the security of this nation."

This is a fairly sharp piece of rhetoric, reminding listeners of Bush's mendacity and unilateralism. It is far more powerful than his references in the Times and Post interviews to Bush's diplomatic "tin ear," an overly polite reference to the administration's relentless bullying of friend and adversary alike. Dean scored much more decisively in the Los Angeles speech by questioning Bush's judgment, and it is this theme that can raise him from the "anti" insurgent to the stature of statesman-candidate.

The speech contained a number of shortcomings, however, particularly as it tried to craft a superior response to terrorism. It was saddled with too much information about intelligence coordination and analysis, for example, and excessive references to the potential threat posed by terrorists acquiring nuclear and biological weapons. Dean proposed to allocate money to prevent them from doing so. He also declared his support for plowing more funds into homeland security.

Such unimaginative proposals are unlikely to gain traction in a presidential campaign, and outspending the Republicans on these matters does not add up to a policy, or a convincing policy difference.

Dean's more promising words about working with other nations also came up a bit short; yes, we want multilateral alliances, but for what purpose? To fight terrorism, according to Dean. In fact, there is a lot of cooperation between the United States and Europeans, among others, in locating and arresting the likes of al Qaeda. This, too, is a tough sell, although opinion surveys consistently show that the proverbial soccer Moms are worried by Bush's go-it-alone swagger. It would be helpful for Dean to articulate why alliances and international organizations are crucial for other reasons -- for example, ecological sustainability, women's rights, and disease prevention.

Couching virtually all foreign-policy discourse in terms of terrorism has its dangers. Polling must have suggested some Bush vulnerability on this issue. But if there are no serious al Qaeda attacks and should Bin Laden follow Saddam to the dock, this set of initiatives will look weak. There were plenty of threads in the speech to weave into a richer tapestry.

Dean revealed more of his liberal internationalist self in his call for global equity: "Today, billions of people live on the knife's edge of survival, trapped in a struggle against ignorance, poverty, and disease." But then he added, "Their misery is a breeding ground for the hatred peddled by bin Laden and other merchants of death." Well, yes, but their misery should be sufficient reason to intervene in itself. Still, Dean pledged to increase foreign aid, and made a $30 billion commitment for battling HIV/AIDS worldwide, about 2-3 times what Bush has promised.

However, he said little about trade or other economic issues.

To do better, Dean should be encouraged to sustain the distinctions his anti-war stance has provided him by elaborating a set of ideas that rely less on think-tank briefs and pandering to trumped up fears about terrorists. America as global leader for human rights, fair economic growth, and environmental integrity -- grand and ennobling ideas that are consistent with Dean's thinking -- would be, over the next ten months, more inspirational to the American people and less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of politics. They have the added advantage of being popular with the American public.

His roster of foreign-policy aides, who were also introduced as part of the foreign-policy foray, was also revealing. There is among them a regrettable glut of Clinton-era officials, a large number of ex-generals, and a few other "centrists" associated with the speech, if not actually signed on to the campaign. What is regrettable about this is not any one individual or ideological bent -- a number of talented people are involved -- but the sense of deja vu all over again.

The Clinton presidency was never very nimble on foreign policy, and even less visionary. It squandered the post-Cold War moment to reshape global politics. Clinton was late on Rwanda and Bosnia, two prime moral tests of his eight-year tenure, and he undermined his own arduous peace efforts in the Middle East at the last moment. Nuclear arms reductions, the international criminal court, global climate change, HIV/AIDS, land mines ban -- these left-liberal issues were often on the Clinton agenda, sometimes engaged but not pursued assertively, and have since languished. The laser-like focus on free trade above all else was Clinton's essence. It was a sorry vision and one that undermines many other progressive goals.

So we will hear from many quarters that Dean's foreign-policy team is a retread of Clintonism, which is hardly a phrase to inspire. That they comprise a far better option than Bush's agenda is beyond dispute. But it does not reveal a clear alternative to the muddling through we have suffered for so many years. There is no evidence of creative thinking about multilateral engagement, global equity, excessive military spending, energy policy, or rethinking alliances, among other issues.

We are instead being asked to accept the improbable notion that the K Street law firms, the Brookings Institution, or the Kennedy School suddenly will become fonts of bold and innovative thinking.

There is no doubt about the candidate himself, who remains a man of loose tongue but surprisingly good instincts on many global issues. Iraq is his calling card, but he has made many heartening statements about the Middle East, trade fairness, and human rights, to name three pivotal issues. Unlike Clinton or Jimmy Carter, who were highly intelligent but lacked confidence in their own foreign-policy acumen, Dean conveys an aura of command that may take him beyond the Washington consensus to daring initiatives and action. There is the rub for progressives, of course -- more faith in a person than a philosophy -- but it is, at least, a decently plausible hope in hard times.

John Tirman directs the Program on Global Security & Cooperation at the Social Science Research Council in Washington DC.